Head coach Cuonzo Martin routinely reminds Tennessee's basketball players that "The ball stops bouncing for everybody someday."
It could stop bouncing for Cameron Tatum tonight.
The fifth-year senior from Lithonia, Ga., has four college games remaining if the Vols win their way to the NIT finals in New York City. Their next loss, however, will bring an end to his college career and perhaps his playing career, as well. That gives tonight's second-round NIT matchup against Middle Tennessee added significance. A loss means the end of a season for the other Vol starters but it means the end of a college career for Tatum, who has to be feeling a heightened sense of urgency.
"Oh, yeah," teammate Jordan McRae said. "Anybody would, knowing your next loss would be the end of your college career. I guess he's approaching every game now like it's his last one."
Being an optimist, Tatum wants to focus on winning tonight and Wednesday at home, then concluding his college career at Madison Square Garden. He doesn't want to be distracted by concerns about ending his career on a loss.
"I really don't try to think about that too much," he said. "I just go out there and try to have fun. If you start thinking about things like that you put added pressure on yourself that's really unwarranted. I just try to go out there, have fun and play the game I love, enjoy playing with my teammates."
As the only Vol with meaningful experience in postseason play, Tatum is trying to give his teammates the same sense of urgency he has.
"You play every game like it's your last," he said. "Just play hard ... the same thing we've been preaching all year long. Give it your best and let the chips fall where they may."
As one of four No. 1 seeds for the NIT, Tennessee played at home last Tuesday against Savannah State. Should the Vols win tonight at home against MTSU, they will play at home Wednesday night versus the winner between No. 2 seed Miami (20-12) and No. 6 seed Minnesota (20-14). Clearly, Tennessee has a good shot at reaching the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden if it continues playing well.
"This is the time to start playing your best ball, start jelling as a team," Tatum said. "I think we're real confident, especially with the boost that the home crowd gives us ... how loud they were the other night.
"A good crowd is like a sixth man. Whenever we score or make a good play, your crowd is really into it. We've got some of the best fans in the country."
If the Vols lose tonight, however, this will be the last time he appears before those fans.
NOTES: Middle Tennessee brings a 26-6 record into tonight's game but stands just 6-4 in its last 10 games. The Blue Raiders lost at Vanderbilt (77-84), at Denver (60-75), at Western Kentucky (67-73) and to Arkansas State (61-64) in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. Conversely, Tennessee is 19-14 but has won nine of its last 11.... Middle Tennessee played before just one crowd in excess of 8,000 all season, that coming in the loss at Vandy, when 14,316 fans watched.... The Blue Raiders have a quality RPI of 53, whereas Tennessee's is 86.... The visitors are expected to start 6-foot-9, 230-pound Laron Dendy (14.8 points, 7.0 rebounds per game), 6-foot-8, 230-pound J.T. Sulton (10.4 points, 5.4 rebounds), 6-foot-3, 195-pound Bruce Massey (5.5 points, 4.0 assists), 6-foot-2, 210-pound Marcos Knight (11.8 points, 5.1 rebounds) and 6-foot, 195-pound Raymond Cintron (8.2 points per game).... Tennessee is 9-1 all-time against Middle Tennessee and has swept the last eight meetings.... Two of college basketball's premier foul shooters will be on display tonight. Cintron is making 89.6 percent from the free-throw line, Tennessee's Trae Golden 84.4 percent.... MTSU reserve James Gallman played his high school ball at Knoxville Fulton.... Tonight's game tips off at 7 with national TV coverage provided by ESPN.